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Stephen Hawking can never be proved right about the afterlife – and that's the true genius of religion

The late Stephen Hawking
The late Stephen Hawking Credit: AFP

Of all the sentences that Stephen Hawking wrote in 1988’s best-selling Brief History of Time, it was the one about developing a “theory of everything” that would be the equivalent of “knowing the mind of God” that was most often quoted back at him. Did his words mean that the theoretical physicist believed in God? 

In his final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, launched yesterday by his children six months after Hawking’s death, the world’s best-known scientist makes one last effort from beyond the grave to clear up any confusion. There is, he states, no heaven and no God. “No-one directs the universe,” and the afterlife is “wishful thinking”.

Challenged as to why her atheist father’s ashes are now interred in Westminster Abbey, which celebrates the God he rejected, Lucy Hawking spoke of the choice simply reflecting his “place in history” alongside the likes of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin who are also buried there. So a case of matter closed? Not quite.

In the new book, Hawking may be putting it more bluntly but he isn’t saying anything he hasn’t said before – ruling out a personal, interventionist God who interferes in the affairs of humankind. That, indeed, has been scientists’ position all the way back to the Jesuit-educated Enlightenment philosophe, Voltaire, in the 18th century.  

What, though, of God as a force at and in the creation of the world? Like Voltaire, Hawking had in the past left the door ajar for a God of creation rather than a God of history. “If one considers the possible constants and laws that could have emerged [at Big Bang], the odds against a universe that has produced life like ours are immense,” he wrote. “I think there are clearly religious implications whenever you start to discuss the origins of the universe.”

Timothy and Lucy Hawking launching Brief Answers to Brief Questions at the Science Museum Credit: afp

Brief Answers does nothing to close down that conversation. Neither, for that matter, did Hawking’s neighbour in Westminster Abbey Charles Darwin. His breakthrough in the science of evolution did not, the 19th century naturalist made plain (though it has been overlooked since), sweep away a creator God. The Origin of the Species describes the extraordinary diversity of the plant and animal kingdom on earth as “having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one”.

In layman’s terms this is “intelligent design” theory and offers a partial reconciliation between religion and science, at loggerheads since the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, because it avoids violating the laws of quantum mechanics and quantum physics by concentrating on what emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang rather than anything further down the line.

If Hawking’s last literary will and testament is nuanced on such matters, there are other issues where he is plainer – like heaven being “wishful thinking”. He had no truck with afterlife. “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” he once remarked. “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers.” 

You might ask about the soul, not the brain, but it is hard to see these as anything other than damning words for those who console themselves in grief with the hope of eternal reunion with loved ones in heaven. Christianity, in its various forms, has long made this offer from the pulpit, though the official teaching of the mainstream churches is vaguer. It talks only of eternal “oneness” with God after earth for the righteous (with hell as separation from God).

Stephen Hawking in 2016 Credit: getty

“Wishful thinking” is usually taken as a negative phrase – ignoring reality. And this is clearly how Hawking means it in regard of heaven, which he describes in Brief Answers as “flying in the face of everything we know in science”. But wishful thinking can also, in this context, provide some wiggle-room, for it remains hard for scientists, by their own logic and rules, to prove a negative, namely that heaven categorically doesn’t exist in any form.

That is the enduring genius of the offer that religion makes when it talks of eternal life. No-one, after all, is ever going to come back from the grave whether there is nothing, or something. In religious terms, heaven remains, as Shakespeare had it in Hamlet, “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns”.

While numbers of those with a formal religious attachment in this country are in steep decline, poll after poll shows continuing high percentages (70 plus) for those retaining faith in some sort of afterlife. It seems that the eternal question mark looms larger in the human psyche that any link with a Church or creed, and is arguably getting bigger still in our ever more individualistic, me-me-me cultures.

For the promise of heaven is finely tuned to the spirit of the age. We find it unimaginable to accept that the magnificent thing that we have created in ourself can just crash and burn, like Hawking’s broken-down computer. Stephen Hawking’s last words may be challenging such sloppy thinking, but in death as in life he has greater courage than the rest of us when it comes to looking his fate in the eye.

Peter Stanford’s Angels: A Visible and Invisible History is published next Easter by Hodder